Let us now speak ill of two very good writers: Nick Hornby and Lorrie Moore. Hornby's new book, Juliet, Naked (Riverhead; 416 pages), is an example of what you might call iPod lit--Arthur Phillips' The Song Is You would be another--novels that meditate on the paradoxical mixture of intimacy and estrangement that arises from listening to digitally recorded music, or really from any human interaction mediated by the Internet. In the case of Juliet, Naked, the music is by Tucker Crowe, a legendary (fictional) singer-songwriter who was last heard from in 1986 but who still has rabid online followers who endlessly dissect his recordings on message boards. Sort of like Elliott Smith, if he'd disappeared instead of died.
Said followers include Duncan, a middle-aged sad sack who runs a Crowe website from the nothing English seaside town of Gooleness, where he lives with his "life partner" (he can't pull it together to marry her) Annie, who has, at best, a layperson's interest in Crowology--and in Duncan: "She and Duncan had ended up together because they were the last two people to be picked for a sports team, and she felt she was better at sports than that."
Into their lives drops Juliet, Naked, an acoustic demo version of Crowe's final album. Uncharacteristically, Annie posts a review of it on Duncan's site. Even more uncharacteristically, Crowe breaks his long silence to e-mail her about the review. With that, the three vertices of this curious love triangle begin to gravitate toward one another.
For all the bits and bytes flowing through it, this is not a particularly electrifying setup. Any novel about a rock star must first get past the ekphrastic nightmare of trying to describe music with prose. But more than that, this is a novel about people who have wasted massive chunks of their lives--Duncan in sterile rock-critic hermeneutics (he's like the worst-case-scenario future of Rob Fleming from High Fidelity); Annie in a dead romance and a dead-end job; and Crowe in sulky, creatively arid seclusion. They're trying to make the best of what's left, but what's left just isn't that great. Juliet, Naked is a bleaker book than Hornby's A Long Way Down, and that was about four people trying to kill themselves.
Hornby's name appears on the front cover of the British edition of Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf; 336 pages), her first since Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? in 1994. It's rare that a blurb escapes from its usual station on the back cover of a book, but if Hornby ever called me the best American writer of my generation, I'd tattoo it on my forehead.
I can see his point about Moore. A random core sample taken from A Gate at the Stairs reveals a density of wry, pitilessly accurate observation unlike anything else in contemporary fiction: "The Mexican strawberries in the refrigerator had grown the wise and cheery beards of Santa Claus." Looking out through an icicle-hung window is like "living in the cold, dead mouth of a very mean snowman." Anybody else wanting to be the greatest writer of Moore's generation is now throwing his or her hat on the ground and stomping on it.